If ever a scoreline flattered a side it was here. Stamford AFC were beaten 4-1 by Evo-Stik Northern Premier League title chasers Darlington 1883 on Tuesday night - but they were desperately unlucky to be on the end of such a big score.
The visitors to the Zeeco Stadium, who turned up late due to traffic on the A1 meaning a delayed kick-off by 45 minutes, didn’t look like a side in the second place in the league for most of the match.
Perhaps it was the long journey, but just perhaps it was the harrying effort displayed by Stamford who never game them a moment’s peace.
It took an hour for the visitors to break the deadlock and there was no surprise that it came from a set-piece. Not because Stamford were defending them badly, or because they were getting a lot of them, but because that was the only area of the game the Quakers posed any threat from for most of the match.
The ball was fired in from a free kick and Stamford keeper Paul Bastock punched the first effort in heavy traffic and was then knocked to the floor. His punch was more up than out and Gary Brown headed the ball home at the second attempt.
It was a deflating goal by the visitors who really should have been behind at that point.
With a new found confidence Darlington scored a further three goals, including a stunning second three minutes later from Terrance Galbraith who crashed a volley home from a nodded on corner.
The Daniels responded with a goal from Sam Hill in the 74th minute but their revival was dented when Graeme Armstrong responded two minutes later.
With four minutes left to play Nathan Cartman added the fourth.
Stamford had certainly started the better of the two sides. Jordan Smith, playing as a more traditional winger had some early joy down the right flank, crossing the ball low into the penalty box with his first foray. It was cleared but showed good intent from the off.
Stamford led by the bustling, energetic and physical Greg Smith, were applying plenty of pressure early on and built it up by winning free kicks in a dangerous area.
From one such effort a dangerous ball was curled into the box and went straight through the legs of Sam Hill who was unsighted at the back post.
The Daniels’ Jake Duffy and Jack Wightwick were close to linking up twice on the break, but that telepathy of movement needed between attackers is still developing. And the final pass went astray more often than not. But things look bright for the future. That future just needs to be sooner rather than later.
Jake Duffy had a shot after a nice break from Stamford but pushed his effort wide.
Stamford were trying to play the more technical football with Wightwick turning his defender inside and out down the left flank. But once again the final effort was off target.
Darlington had a single snap shot which went wide of the mark to show for their efforts in the first half as a fully committed Stamford side threw their bodies in the way of the ball to clear the danger in their own half.
Centre back Paul Malone, who was named Stamford’s player of the match at the final whistle, really should have given the hosts the lead. He had a header in space from a corner but was just off balance as he took aim and directed it over the crossbar. Wightwick continued to threaten down the flank and a cross come shot forced Darlington keeper Peter Jameson to tip the ball over.
But Stamford were good for their clean sheet at half time,
Darlington looked better from the start in the second half. Bastock made a good save at his near post from a quick free kick move early on and then Stamford survived a handball shout as a close range shot looked to have hit a hand in the area.
But Stamford were still in the match and Greg Smith, who had a superb first half being aggressive but playing just on the right side of legal, hooked the ball just over, onto the top netting, from a Wightwick cross.
However the opening goal seemed to puncture the Daniels’ belief and Darlington rallied. A minute after Brown headed them ahead a thunderous 25-yard drive left the crossbar rattling. It was not the only thing rattled. Darlington’s second was the one moment of class from the visitors, who are second in the league and will go top if they win their games in hand. Galbraith’s technique to score his volley was impeccable. The shot was unstoppable.
Stamford calmed down and got one back. Malone rose highest to head a free kick goalwards forcing Jameson into a save, he could only direct it into the path of Hill who struck the ball home and then raced back to the halfway line intent on getting something from the match.
Daniels manager Graham Drury was throwing caution to the wind, making attacking substitutions and moving into an offensive formation, but instead his side conceded two soft goals. The first an unmarked header from a corner and the second from some nice hold up play setting Cartman free to smash home.
The result leaves Stamford one point above the relegation zone in 20th place. It means their next game at home against Marine (19th) on Saturday is now vitally important. The Liverpool-based side lost 2-1 at home to Buxton on Tuesday. In the other game involving the sides at the bottom Colwyn Bay (23rd) beat Mickleover Sports (22nd) 2-1, keeping it very tight.
Stamford AFC: Paul Bastock, Taron Hare, Ollie Luto, Paul Malone, Sam Hill, Curtis Hartley, Jordan Smith, Sam Duffy, Greg Smith, Jake Duffy, Jack Wightwick.
Substitutes: Jon Challinor, Lee Beeson, Jake Newman, Callum Rzonca, Ricky Lovelace.
Darlington 1883: Peter Jameson, Christopher Hunter, Terrance Galbraith, Phillip Turnball, Adam Nowakowski, Gary Brown, Adam Mitchell, Liam Hardy, Lee Gaskell, Nathan Cartman, Stephen Thompson.
Substitutes: Graeme Armstrong, Thomas Portas, Leon Scott, Kevin Burgess, Robert Provett.
Referee: Mr Mark Jones